In 1978, about a year after I finished writing my controversial anti-war play Bedtime Story, the folks at the Bombay office of the British Council asked me to send it to Peter Brook since it dealt with the Mahabharata, a subject that he and his writing partner, Jean Claude Carriere, were working on. Did they take a look at it? I have no idea, but in good time, they put up a nine-hour version of the Mahabharata which was performed, I think, in an abandoned mine outside Paris. It got rave reviews. Later on there was a five-hour film version which was released at the Excelsior theatre in Mumbai. Now there is a sort of sequel called Battlefield, which is being hosted by the National Centre for the Performing Arts and will later make the rounds of other cities in India.
Here is what The Guardian had to say about Battlefield: “a human earthquake of modern theatre.” The Straits Times obviously did not wish to lag behind and said, “A command of the dramatic form that leaves one breathless.” I’m afraid old age must be playing havoc with my hearing not to mention my sensitivity to seismic activity for I missed out totally on this metaphorical earthquake. As with so many other denizens in our city, the horrible pollution has left me short of breath, but I have to confess Battlefield did not leave me breathless.
I have always thought of The Guardian as not only one of the very few independent and thoughtful newspapers in today’s e-world but also as the guardian of the English tongue. I believed that it was extremely conscious of using language with the utmost care and a deep regard for the weight, substance and the measure of a word. So having watched the play, I am yet to figure out the hyperbole. Was this sheer ignorance on the part of the critic being passed off as an intimate acquaintance with the epic? Was he playing it safe knowing the reputation of the original nine-hour play? Which battlefield is the play talking about? Kurukshetra? Or are we being fed the lofty pap that the battlefield is the soul of man?
The play was touted as anti-war. Did the mere fact that Dhritarashtra mentions five or six times that his eldest son, Duryodhan was hell-bent on the war make it a plea for universal peace? Surely even in the westernised audience at the NCPA, there must have been enough people who would have known that the only real anti-war stance issued from none other than Arjun who said come what may, he would not shed the blood of his cousins. And that’s how his charioteer Krishna turned around to face the third Pandava on the battlefield and recited the Gita, an exceptionally wise and philosophical commentary on life and the human condition and with enough contradictions and sleights of hand for generations to grapple with.
Dhritarashtra’s lament about the war is followed by a concatenation of incidents, fables and stories chosen at random and which are devoid of any epiphanic thrust. The line-up begins with Kunti, the mother of the five Pandavas asking her eldest son, Yudhishtira or Dharamraj to perform the funeral rights for “Kaarnaa”, (neither the director nor the actors, it appears had any desire to check on the pronunciation of this or any other name and practice the right stresses), the son she begot from her liaison with the sun-god. The next thing the audience witnesses is the death of Bhishma. It is pointless to ask how a foreign audience abroad was to understand who this great soul, the very epitome of self-abnegation, probity, and purportedly the most noble of all the characters in the epic was.
Out of context
A little digression here will not be out place. When my play Bedtime Story was read out for the first time at Dr Lagu’s home, Professor SP Bhagwat, the publisher of my first novel, Saat Sakkam Trechalis, was part of the select audience. I had enormous respect for him for he was my editor and had the ability to raise the bar by merely suggesting slight changes which made a world of difference to the text. Bhagwat was almost transparently fair of complexion and always wore a white pyjama-kurta. By the time the reading of Bedtime Story was over, he had turned a raging scarlet. He ticked me off in front of everybody and told me that I had not the faintest inkling of the greatness of Bhishma Pitamaha, the great father-figure. It took me time to comprehend the remarkable stature of the man but in truth it reconfirmed my belief that he was a highly problematic character. Undeniably that made him one of the most intriguing personalities in world literature. Bhishma truly deserves a play or even better, a superb novelist exploring this complex puzzle of a man. His moral compass is unerring and in perfect working condition and yet every time there is an ethical crisis, he does not stand up and raise his voice. Indeed he watches silently – perhaps deeply embarrassed – the disrobing of Draupadi. When it comes to the crunch even as the Kauravas refuse to give back to the Pandvas their kingdom Indraprastha and instead declare hostilities, he does not rail against the injustice and madness of war but stands solidly with the hundred Kauravas. Throughout his life then his loyalty is to the Kaurava family and not to moral principles and values.
If Batttlefield yanks out Bhishma out of context, there is a black hole at the centre of the play when it comes to Dhritarashtra’s wife, Gandhari, and the mother of the Kauravas. Her place is taken by Kunti and one keeps wondering how the mother of the five Pandavas lands up with her brother-in-law Dhritarashtra in the forest to practice extreme austerity and detachment? Is one to understand that the playwright was banking on an international audience’s familiarity with the Mahabharata and thus took it for granted that they will know that Gandhari, Vidura, the half-brother of Pandu and Dhritarashtra and Sanjay the charioteer will also join the other two in the forest? The Mahabharata is the longest epic in the world and even Indians tend to lose track of the multitude of story lines. Brook’s random cavalier selection and attitude end up creating lacunae where a single sentence would have demystified Gandhari’s absence.
Lack of coherence
The play ends on what I suspect is meant to be a revelatory symbolic end. We are told of the sage Markandeya who is the only human to survive the destruction of the universe. What the sage sees is the baby Krishna/Vishnu floating on a leaf happily chewing on his toe. The sage slips into the mouth of the child and descends into its belly – only to witness the entire diverse universe itself. Thoroughly bewildered, Markandeya prays to Vishnu and the god lets him out of his mouth. It is the signal for the start of a new cycle of creation. Sadly even the sheer tranquility of the child sucking his big toe atop the leaf is lost in the actor’s mumbling.
What stays with us is the arbitrariness of the stories chosen and their lack of coherence. Yes, the fine drumming evokes Shiva’s damru in the primeval silence at the beginning of life itself; and yes, the semaphoring of the red and saffron furling and unfurling of shawls is pleasing to the eye but nothing adds up in Battlefield. One is left clueless as to why one has been made to sit through 60 or 70 minutes and is left without any take-away. It must be some kind of feat that the subject is the Mahabharata and it does not offer us any insights. What exactly did Brook have in mind when he decided to do a post-script play? The colossal loss of lives, the monumental tragedy and futility of the mother of all battles are never confronted and thus leave us unmoved. Are we still so in awe of the West that we cannot even discern the absence of ideas, conflict and a play?